What Gives One UNICEF Leader Hope In The Midst Of The Refugee Crisis

"The optimism of children and the tenacity of their spirit is some of what keeps me optimistic."

Despite the tumult of a news cycle where hope can seem scarce, Carly Stern has it in spades.

The CEO of UNICEF USA is on the front lines of a refugee crisis that is affecting 50 million children across the world. She  knows that most Americans don't see the crisis on their own shores and, as a result, it doesn't top their list of concerns. But Stern isn't fazed.


"The optimism of children and the tenacity of their spirit is some of what keeps me optimistic," Stern told A Plus. "Maybe I'm a bit of a Pollyanna. I just always believe tomorrow is going to be a better day."

Caryl Stern during a trip to Guatemala.  Courtesy of UNICEF

On Wednesday, for World Refugee Day, Stern spoke to A Plus about what her work at UNICEF meant to her and why she decided to pursue this career. Stern's mother was a child refugee during the Holocaust who came to the United States after the Nazis invaded Vienna. She was only six years old, with her younger brother in tow. The woman who brought her mother to the United States sheltered her in Manhattan's Lower East Side,and when they separated, her mother never saw the woman again.

During that same time, Stern's grandfather was on the S.S. St Louis, a cruise liner that ferried more than 900 Jews from Germany in 1939. The boat tried to reach Cuba and then journey on to the United States, but was turned away in Havana. When nobody would take the refugees in, the boat returned to Germany where more than 250 Jews were killed by the Nazis. 

"From my mom, I learned how one person can make a difference," Stern said. "And from my grandfather, I learned what happens when the world turns its back. It's not surprising that I ended up doing this for a living."

As part of her work with UNICEF, Stern has traveled in over 30 countries and is at the forefront of the organization's relief efforts for children affected by disaster. 

A trip to Darfur, Sudan sticks out in Stern's memory. She had just spoken to a group of older women in a refugee camp about their experiences being sexually assaulted and was now meeting with a group of 12-year-old girls. Stern prepared herself for the worst — to hear the firsthand accounts of the kind of abuse she knew these children had experienced.

Caryl Stern during a trip to Guatemala.  Courtesy of UNICEF

Instead, though, when she sat down with the girls and started chatting, one of the kids broke the ice with a question that made clear that some elements of being a preteen are universal.

"The first girl asked what 12-year-old boys in New York City are like," Stern said. "And I just got to hysterical laughing, because they are just 12-year-old girls. It doesn't matter that they are in a refugee camp."

Ultimately, that's the message Stern is trying to send to Americans and the rest of hte world: that these refugees, asylum seekers and migrants — the ones in Syria and the ones at the southern border of the United States — are just children. Stern believes if we spend more time thinking of them as children and spent more time making policies and decisions for them as such, we will create a much better world. 

In the last few weeks, Stern said she has been encouraged by the response to the zero-tolerance immigration policy on the U.S.-Mexico border that resulted in children being separated from their parents. She said she's been encouraged over the past few days by seeing legislators on both sides of the aisle focusing not on the complexities of immigration law, but instead on the simple fact that immigrant children are still children, and we have a responsibility to care for them.

"Children don't get to pick where they are born, and if they did, they wouldn't pick poverty, they wouldn't pick a conflict zone," Stern said.  "As Americans, we tend to define them — 'oh they are Syria's children,' 'they are Haiti's children,' 'these are Guatemala's children'… These are just children. I think the first call to action for America is to just see them as children first. "


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